“My religious order has survived dictators, it can survive this.”
A priest once said that to me and it made me realize something. The Catholic Church is like a weed. It can survive anywhere and the more you try to pull it out, the more it spreads. The Church has always known how to adapt.
It is hard to believe, but the Catholic Church has been in China longer than Europeans have discovered America. This is due to countless waves of missionaries starting in 1234 A.D. first and foremost, but also due to their craftiness in preaching the Gospel. The missionary who was most successful at this was Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary who studied for years to learn the language, customs, clothing, and culture of China before even coming to Beijing. In the end, he was successful, but only because he brought the most advanced sciences in mathematics, geometry, and astronomy to China. This is what led to toleration and acceptance of this foreigner’s religion.
Even at that, the country was never completely receptive to Christianity. This intolerance hit an all time high during the Communist revolution in China on October 1, 1949, the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. As a communist state, all religious groups were banned and of course, Catholicism was one of them. Public worship was outlawed, religious books were burned, and those who refused to cooperate were considered a threat to the state. They were martyred or imprisoned. The church went underground, but the Church survived.
In 1957, the beginnings of the Church began to come out from the shadows in what was known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. These were Catholics who could demonstrate their commitment to the Chinese Communist state, while also retaining the traditions and teachings of the Church. The Patriotic Church still suffered, and there were many who remained underground, lacking trust in the government which actively sought to observe, monitor, and control the activities of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The biggest tension came from the fact that the Association appointed bishops in the Church, without the approval of the Vatican.
Although this may sound very questionable to Catholics today, historically, there is a range methods the Vatican has used to appoint bishops or accept the appointment of bishops. A little known fact is that John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States, was actually elected bishop, not appointed. His fellow priests felt it was necessary for the Church to adapt to the models of democracy that were being emphasized in the American colonies. A bishop who was appointed and not elected, would have difficult time serving in America, where all leaders were being elected. The Vatican accepted the argument, and the choice of John Carroll. In the same way, the Vatican is working with the Church in China, adjusting to the political expectations that the Church needs to survive.
By1978, religious freedom became accepted policy for the China. The communist state now grants license to 5 religious groups, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity (Protestant), Catholicism, and Islam . “How can this be?” You might ask. How does a political system that views religion as the opiate that desensitizes the laborer from self actualization come to accept and legalize religion? What happened was simple. Religion was not going to be suppressed, so the state sought to modify religious traditions to the benefit of the state. Religions had to show how the religion fit into the flourishing of the state. Under this scenario, the Church in China adapted the slogan. “Love the country, love religion.”
Today, I went to Nantang or South Cathedral today and met with the pastor Fr. Francis Xavier Zhang. He was an exceptional man who helped explain the history of the Church’s development in China. He sat me down in a big room with big chairs and said, “You sit there. President Clinton sat there. Very important room for important meeting.” I was humbled.
Most significant to our conversation was his explanation to me how the current leaders of the Patriotic church advocate that “being Catholic” is “being authentically Chinese.” The Sacramental (Immanent reality), Moral, Cultural, Charitable, and Civil modes of the Church’s existence all re-echo the modes that the state also must occupy to be successful. In this, the church and state, though separate, are unified in their objectives.
I was struck by what he said. The description reminded me of my own studies of the American Catholic experience. The “Golden Age” of American Catholicism is described as the period of time when it was clear that to “be Catholic” meant to “be truly American.” Bishop Sheen was on the Television, Notre Dame was winning championships, and President Kennedy was in the White House. There was no confusion. Though the Church and state were separate, they worked together. As St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, the state and church function like body and soul. Though we think of them separately, they are unified and must work in harmony, otherwise both fail their purpose.
Fr. Francis Xavier Zhang considers the current age of Chinese Catholicism to be the “Golden Age” He reports to me that the current number of Catholics in China is 12 million and growing. In his parish, last year they baptized 600 adults and 200 children. 600 people come to daily Mass every day in a Church that holds around 800 people. There is great acceptance of the Catholic Church and he hopes to see the Church in China to grow more and more in the years to come.
If he is right, it will be because the Church has found a way to adapt to the Chinese culture. When the Church first came to China through Matteo Ricci, there was initial success because Matteo Ricci was successful at the enculturation of Christianity into Chinese. I am certain that if Europeans in 1245 saw Matteo Ricci wearing Chinese garb, they would have been outraged. They would have felt that Matteo Ricci was “compromising” many aspects the Faith that are really just European customs. Missionaries have to adapt to preserve the core values of the Faith. That is what they do.
In my pilgrimage today, I had the opportunity to reflect the role of Matteo Ricci in Chinese Catholicism. The South Cathedral is built on the site of the original church that Matteo Ricci founded. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of the South Cathedral by clicking here. You will notice in the pictorial that I had the opportunity to photograph a very happy family in the midst of a wedding celebration. Farther to the north, you can also see the grave of Matteo Ricci which I had the opportunity to visit today. To see Matteo Ricci’s tomb, click here.
What I find amazing in my study is how in one part of the world “being Catholic” could mean “being fully American” and at the same time “being Catholic”can seen as “being fully Chinese.” It seems contradictory, but that is to our limited minds. The victory of the Church is that it can and has existed under and in spite of many political systems. In every case, it has found a way to survive. It has survived tribalism, monarchy, and tyranny. It has survived both when suppressed and sponsored by the state. Heck, it’s even survived democracy! This brief history blog is not meant to capture the entire experience of the Chinese church, but to give a few notes on one of the Church’s most remarkable features, adaptability.